Hey N97, let's be friends (its not me, its you)

This post has been an idea in my head, bouncing around while I debate what to write about my Nokia N97. I was hoping I could tell you that the phone performs even better than I expected, satisfies all my needs and is undoubtedly the best phone ever … like, ever! Sadly, I can’t do that. I should probably begin with what my expectations are of my device. For one thing I want my smart device to plug into my contacts and calendar and sync with them as effortlessly as is possible. I don’t want to change processes that work well for me although I am open to new and better ways of working.

The Nokia N97 is a great smartphone and Internet device, it really is. It is the top of the current Nokia range and can do just about everything smartphones these days can do (and more) in terms of raw functionality. At the same time, the N97 is somewhat disappointing to me given my initial expectations of the device. I was hoping the N97 would become my one device that I carry around with me and which takes care of my communications, Internet connectivity and media needs. It only really caters for some of these needs adequately.

I am not going to talk too much about the N97’s UI. It isn’t great, there’s no denying it and anyone at Nokia or Symbian you speak to will likely agree that the current S60 user interface is dated and due for an overhaul (expected around 2011). The iPhone 3Gs and Android devices have far more modern interfaces that look terrific. All of this emphasis on the UI did get me wondering about the underlying Symbian operating system and from what I was told, it remains a robust and effective mobile operating system today.

I decided to approach this post from the perspective of an N97 user. I don’t own an iPhone and as I pointed out previously, I have always been a Nokia user. I am also a Mac user and that tends to skew the experience for me. I think I would have a better overall experience of the N97 and Nokia devices if I was a Windows user. It almost goes without saying that I don’t know everything about my N97 and what I can do with it so you may find yourself going “Yes, but, if you look at this menu and click on this setting you can do that thing …” in which case, please comment below or drop me a note and correct me.

Pros and Cons, briefly

To begin with there are a number of things I like about the N97:

  • the slide-out keyboard is pretty good although the angle seems just a little off to me;
  • the camera is the best I’ve had on a mobile phone and takes fantastic photos in decent lighting (although not so great photos in dim to low light);
  • Maps 3 which beats the pants off Google Maps on this device (this is one of the applications I would miss most if I ever stopped using a Nokia device);
  • the over-the-air software update application (not news to iPhone users but this is a boon for Mac users who can’t use Ovi Suite yet); and
  • the widget framework.

Unfortunately the N97 starts to lose its sheen when I get down to the nitty gritty of my day to day experiences. Unlike my E71 and a host of other Nokia devices, there is still no iSync plugin which means I can’t sync my N97 with my MacBook and update my contacts list and calendar on my device and vice versa. This presents a challenge because much of what I do each day and with my phone depends on up to date contacts and calendar information. I haven’t actually sync’d my N97 since I got it and although there are options available, none of them really seem to put a smile on my face. I have this nagging sense that to truly commit to the N97 I would have to make some serious changes to my productivity processes and systems.

Messaging, messaging

The phone’s Mail for Exchange support does go a way towards alleviating the pain of not being able to sync with my MacBook and I’ve thought about ways everything could just sync with the Google cloud where much of my stuff is. It is do-able, I imagine, but I just haven’t had the time to sit and figure it all out and get it working. The last time I used Mail for Exchange was on the pre-release N97 I used at the end of May/beginning of June and that made quite a mess of my calendars and contacts so I need to psych myself up to try it all again.

The built in email application is pretty basic so one of the first things I did was replace it with Nokia Messaging. That was a bad idea. Nokia Messaging has an improved interface but it installs to the phone memory (distinct from the 32GB drive) automatically and without giving you the option to install it elsewhere. This is a problem because it doesn’t take a lot of mail to take up all the available phone memory and start crashing the device. To add to that pain, I also received an email from Nokia informing me that my Nokia Messaging subscription had been terminated because one of my devices was transferred to someone else. That is a great security measure but I don’t know which device is the culprit. In any event, I had by that time decided to kick Nokia Messaging and go back to the default. Thankfully Nafisa reminded me about the Gmail app for the N97 and that works pretty well for me.

My new media device? And what about all those apps?

I was also hoping the N97 could take over from my iPod as my primary media device and while Nokia Multimedia Transfer does a decent job transferring content across using a sort of iTunes bridge and the Nokia music app works well, the device doesn’t so much sync as shuffle media around. I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and I haven’t figured out yet if my N97 would carry on from where I left off, leave a marker of some kind where I stop and then allow iTunes to continue from there. I have transferred some media to my N97 and the 32GB of drive space does come in handy!

When it comes to applications I accept that the iPhone and Android devices have better applications, for the most part. Just the same I can still do what I need to do with my N97 and the apps that are available. The widget framework is a little buggy and stops working if it gets annoyed with me but turning the phone off and on a couple times seems to sort that out. The Ovi Store has great potential and I’ve had pretty good experiences downloading and installing apps on my phone using the Ovi Store app. In fact the first app I bought through the Ovi Store was Gravity which is a great Twitter app that really is worth €10 to me. The Ovi Store doesn’t have nearly the variety of great apps that the iTunes store does but I think it will improve in time.

There are other things that niggle (the battery indicator can be a big fat liar and I often find myself with no charge left in the middle of something) and just as many aspects of the phone that I really like (the swooshy call answer thing is nice, as is the touch screen experience – even if it isn’t as good as the iPhone with its capacitive touchscreen). If you look at the N97 in isolation, it is a great device. It really is. When I look at the N97 as an essential device in my day to day life, I can’t help but still feel a little let down. The experience isn’t as good as the hype I built up for myself in the last few months.

Alternatives, for what they are worth

When I look at the iPhone and Android phones like the HTC Hero, I become even more aware of what is missing from the N97 in terms of the general user experience. It does go beyond
the UI though. I don’t see the N97 ever integrating with my Mac nearly as well as the iPhone will. That level of integration is important because my workflows begin with my Mac and move outwards. Using Google services for email, calendaring and so on does make it easier to work more productively but the inability to sync my calendars the way I have set them up, for example, gets in the way. In fact, when I consider the services that are most important to how I work, Android devices take on considerable appeal but I do ask myself whether going with an Android device wouldn’t be committing to another platform and modus operandi that is dependent on my using Google services.

As well as the iPhone will integrate with my workflows, I can’t help but feel that I would be sacrificing a number of things that my N97 does well and that I have come to rely on. Nokia Maps 3 with its guidance is an example of that functionality the iPhone just can’t match just yet. That being said there are more and more apps for the iPhone and probably also for Android that enhance those devices to a point where they will do everything the N97 does and more.

Bottom line

Despite all its deficiencies in my eyes, I like the N97. It is a well built device and it generally works well for me. There are probably a number of ways I could tweak the device to fit better into my workflows which I am simply not aware of so any criticism should be weighed accordingly. Then again, there are things that I just can’t do with an N97 that I can do very well with an iPhone or perhaps an Android phone. Using an Android device would ironically mean I would need to change how I do some of the things I do anyway but the growing number of quality apps and the tight integration with the Google services I use could make up for that. The iPhone would undoubtedly fit the best with my MacBook and be the closest to the one converged device I long for but that does come with sacrifices.

For now I am happy to use my N97 and explore ways I can use it more effectively. There are even times I long for my E71 and its slim form factor. On the whole, though, this is a solid phone and it does what I need to do every day. What it doesn’t really do for me is introduce me to even better ways of doing things or better things I can do to be more productive. That potential can be pretty valuable too.

Paul

Enthusiast, writer, strategist, web developer, and photographer. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

  1. I switched from a Samsung (won’t mention which one…) and I couldn’t wait to get the N97. I have to admit I haven’t really had time to sit down and figure out all the applications etc so some of the problems I’m experiencing might be explained in the manual.

    I agree with you on the quality of the camera, I absolutely love it. It takes great pictures, even in the evening, something my old phone (and our Sony Cybershot digital camera) can’t do. Another big bonus for me is the fact that the N97 has both a touch screen and a slide-out Qwerty keyboard. I compared quite a few phones whilst deciding which one to go with and the N97’s keyboard beat all the others out there, including Blackberry’s  Now I really need to make time to get to know my phone better…

  2. I switched from a Samsung (won’t mention which one…) and I couldn’t wait to get the N97. I have to admit I haven’t really had time to sit down and figure out all the applications etc so some of the problems I’m experiencing might be explained in the manual.

    I agree with you on the quality of the camera, I absolutely love it. It takes great pictures, even in the evening, something my old phone (and our Sony Cybershot digital camera) can’t do. Another big bonus for me is the fact that the N97 has both a touch screen and a slide-out Qwerty keyboard. I compared quite a few phones whilst deciding which one to go with and the N97’s keyboard beat all the others out there, including Blackberry’s  Now I really need to make time to get to know my phone better…

  3. @Carla Fourie

    It is easy to spend a good few hours playing with the N97. I kept discovering a number of things that surprised me like little shortcuts from the front screen to menus and functions. I do like the phone, despite my objections. It may just be a case of learning to work slightly differently.

  4. @Carla Fourie

    It is easy to spend a good few hours playing with the N97. I kept discovering a number of things that surprised me like little shortcuts from the front screen to menus and functions. I do like the phone, despite my objections. It may just be a case of learning to work slightly differently.

  5. After playing with a few N97’s I cannot help but feel that the lack of a capacitative touch screen is its biggest downfall. These days when I see a stylus with a device, I already see a red flag waving. One thing I do appreciate about the N97 (and almost any high end Nokia) is that the build quality is excellent.

    In my honest opinion, I think Nokia should stick to non touch screen phones until they are willing to switch to capacitative screens. This is not a bad thing – there is still a very big market that do not want touch screens at all.

  6. After playing with a few N97’s I cannot help but feel that the lack of a capacitative touch screen is its biggest downfall. These days when I see a stylus with a device, I already see a red flag waving. One thing I do appreciate about the N97 (and almost any high end Nokia) is that the build quality is excellent.

    In my honest opinion, I think Nokia should stick to non touch screen phones until they are willing to switch to capacitative screens. This is not a bad thing – there is still a very big market that do not want touch screens at all.

  7. Paul, this is an excellent review. The highlight of most debates about the N97 focuses on S60’s lack of UI flash, but that’s just a side-point in my view. Yes, I would like some more eye-candy, but overall S60 is a solid OS, and I’m glad you also see beyond this one issue.

    My workflow is based around Google calendar/contacts etc (seamlessly synced on my n97 using Mail For Exchange), and Evernote – my current mobile solution is an N97 app called pixelpipe which will let me post to evernote (and pretty much any online storage system in the world), but it is clunky and it is painful knowing iPhone users have a neat dedicated Evernote app.

    I think this is the difference between N97 and iPhone experiences – N97 can do all the stuff that iPhone can (and with its proper multitasking, probably more), but the Symbian way always seems more ‘work-around’ while the iPhone way is a clean-cut dedicated app.

  8. Paul, this is an excellent review. The highlight of most debates about the N97 focuses on S60’s lack of UI flash, but that’s just a side-point in my view. Yes, I would like some more eye-candy, but overall S60 is a solid OS, and I’m glad you also see beyond this one issue.

    My workflow is based around Google calendar/contacts etc (seamlessly synced on my n97 using Mail For Exchange), and Evernote – my current mobile solution is an N97 app called pixelpipe which will let me post to evernote (and pretty much any online storage system in the world), but it is clunky and it is painful knowing iPhone users have a neat dedicated Evernote app.

    I think this is the difference between N97 and iPhone experiences – N97 can do all the stuff that iPhone can (and with its proper multitasking, probably more), but the Symbian way always seems more ‘work-around’ while the iPhone way is a clean-cut dedicated app.

  9. Hi Lesiki

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve been thinking about my own workflows and I am beginning to think I should make a change and sync everything with the cloud and use that as my primary hub. I am probably a little too fixated on my MacBook as the primary source of info. I have tried to set up my N97 using Mail for Exchange and I haven’t gotten it working yet. I do keep meaning to spend some time checking through the settings though.

    The one question I have when it comes to Mail for Exchange is what its relative merits are when compared to IMAP on the email side.

  10. Hi Lesiki

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve been thinking about my own workflows and I am beginning to think I should make a change and sync everything with the cloud and use that as my primary hub. I am probably a little too fixated on my MacBook as the primary source of info. I have tried to set up my N97 using Mail for Exchange and I haven’t gotten it working yet. I do keep meaning to spend some time checking through the settings though.

    The one question I have when it comes to Mail for Exchange is what its relative merits are when compared to IMAP on the email side.

  11. I still use IMAP for my email and sync my calendar and contacts through MfE. I assume that MfE is primarily targetted at organisations with a company directory, so you can use company mailing lists etc which you may not be able to do in IMAP.

    I still use Nokia Messaging, and I agree – it’s less than ideal. I actually downloaded this immediately when I got the phone, so I haven’t tried the built-in email app yet.

    I can only speak for MfE syncing with Google Calendar, which it does perfectly. I have mine set up to sync my phone calendar with my Google calendar (which is in turn synced with my desktop calendar) every 4 hours. There’s no apps to leave running in the background, no alerts or anything, the MfE app just gets it done.

  12. I still use IMAP for my email and sync my calendar and contacts through MfE. I assume that MfE is primarily targetted at organisations with a company directory, so you can use company mailing lists etc which you may not be able to do in IMAP.

    I still use Nokia Messaging, and I agree – it’s less than ideal. I actually downloaded this immediately when I got the phone, so I haven’t tried the built-in email app yet.

    I can only speak for MfE syncing with Google Calendar, which it does perfectly. I have mine set up to sync my phone calendar with my Google calendar (which is in turn synced with my desktop calendar) every 4 hours. There’s no apps to leave running in the background, no alerts or anything, the MfE app just gets it done.

  13. […] and while there are options to sync with my Macbook, indirectly, using Mail for Exchange and so on, I am not thrilled. You may remember I ranted about Nokia’s Mac support a little while ago without doing […]

  14. […] I most recently used a Nokia N97 with mixed feelings after hyping it up for myself so much I was disappointed by its failure to meet my arguably unrealistic expectations. I recently switched to the Android […]

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: